Attachment as Defense: How Trauma Shapes the Self

By Jeremy McAllister, MA, LPC,

The experience of trauma often shapes our beliefs of self, other, and world. In turn, those beliefs shape our relationships, pervade our families, spread to our communities, and stretch across societies. Our attachment styles and strategies, which can be categorized by individual beliefs about dependency and support in the wake of interpersonal trauma, often correspond to early relational traumas.

Attachment styles are most often associated with parenting or romantic relationships. They shape the ways we lie and/or cheat. They might define our sexual fantasies and influence our decision to pursue sex as a shared or solo practice. They help mold our political and religious views, boundaries in friendships, assessment of dangerous situations, physical health, epigenetics, over- or under-utilization of health and human services, and interactions with employers or any other authority figure or system.

They may further impact a wide range of interactions between self and other:

  • The ways we approach mindfulness
  • How we react to stress
  • The manner in which we identify and pursue our goals
  • How we tend to our own basic needs
  • The way we create or withdraw from conflict in any given setting.

Trauma-molded beliefs may predict our ability to thrive or fail when life presents obstacles. In our culture, we can see these extreme echoes and reflections of trauma. They are in the vernacular, the language that defines and divides geographic regions: “Buck up. Emotion is weak. We don’t ask for directions.” These are all avoidant, counter-dependent messages, often assigned and attributed to males in our culture. These are also vestiges of the “rugged individualism” that shaped our country.

The constructed rules that dictate social interactions originated at some point from individual attachment styles that developed in direct response to relational trauma. These internal rules, formed during individual traumas, eventually externalize and spread outward, permeating cultures and influencing conflicts on a grander scale. Rules and beliefs related to anxious attachment—“Your partner is responsible for your emotions, is supposed to take care of you. Individual needs do not matter. It’s more important to belong, to share everything—”can also spread. There is no escaping trauma in this world, and trauma can interrupt even the most robust and healthy generational patterns.

With anxious attachment, there may be a tendency to blame the parents. While it’s true we do form attachment beliefs based on our relationships with our caregivers, in the greater scheme, the trauma-broken innocence was also true for them, for their parents, and for their parents’ parents.

There is no escaping trauma in this world, and trauma can interrupt even the most robust and healthy generational patterns. In the wake of trauma, we are forced to relearn ways of connecting with self and other. And the relearning can span generations—generations that are likely, in the meantime, to be interrupted again by other traumas.


Our trauma reactions are hardwired into these vessels we inhabit. The theory of a “defense cascade,” supported by Porges’ polyvagal theory, suggests our trauma responses occur in a specific sequence: we move from our “social nervous system” to “fight or flight” and then to “freeze.”

The work of Peter Levine, developer of Somatic Experiencing®, supports another idea: longer-held, character-shaping postures that are often the response to ongoing or repeated trauma also occur in sequence. To escape from these postures, then, it may be necessary to traverse the sequence in reverse: from freeze, through fight or flight, and then back to social connection.

What follows is a framework of attachment styles that serves as both a defense “cascade” and a progression through beliefs of dependence or abandonment. Note that, while this is presented as a “simplified” model, humans are not simple. We each come with hardwired temperaments and a variety of motivation systems—though our survival and attachment systems often overrides these—and we internalize multiple caregivers. Few of us remain consistently in one attachment style across a range of situations.

Stage 1: Secure Attachment, Internalized Connection

In this stage, the trauma response is one of connection: “I am supported; I can depend on self and other.” The mind and body function in harmony, and desires are easy to identify and express. Individuals may be more discerning in their relationships and better able to move on when a relationship is not working. Posture is more likely to be relaxed and expressive or nonreactive, and a person may be able to bond more easily. The internalized connection may be more attuned: the internal parent is connected, curious, and welcoming, while the internal child is soothed and regulated.

Stage 2: Anxious Attachment, Internalized Abandonment

When threat is imminent, our bodies mobilize into action. We may become loud, often drawing attention intentionally. This anxious stage represents the duality of a screaming child being abandoned and an internalized parent who may be overwhelmed or fleeing from that child. As this relationship is projected onto the world, the feelings of abandonment may feel insatiable. Finding no internal support, the child reaches out to other people in desperation, sometimes chasing and clinging.

The trauma response here is one of fight. Flight is a non-option because it leads away from other, from life. A person who is in this stage may resort to expressive or reactive strategies in order to elicit a response, with an attitude of dependence: “I need you. You’re supposed to take care of me.” A person may experience chaotic or limited boundaries, easily merging with others and losing their sense of self. The body may overwhelm the mind, making it hard to separate the wants of the self from the wants of another.

Relationships may be characterized by hypo-discernment: A person may remain with a partner they no longer care for in order to avoid being alone. In abandoning or being unable to access the internal self, a person may become unable to connect to others in the present moment. Individuals in this stage may create “drama” to amplify their needs and test or sabotage friendships. In a relationship, they may feel abandoned easily and tend to seek romantic or sexual support outside the relationship when they perceive their partner as unavailable.

For healing to take place, a person typically must learn to be with self enough to feel the presence of other.

Stage 3: Avoidant Attachment, Internalized Oppression

We fall into freeze when the energy of fight or flight is spent and neither sequence has completed. Freeze also remains the default when both fight and flight are non-options, as is the case for many children. At an internal level, avoidant attachment develops in reaction to anxious attachment that evoked punishment. As this is a step beyond (or a layer atop) stage 2, the challenge lies first in gradually learning to trust other, then in dealing with the intense feelings of abandonment that lie hidden and compartmentalized beneath this secondary defense.

Individuals in this stage may be more likely to hide in order to minimize attention and potential judgment, and they may be less active in the pursuit of their goals. Counter-dependence means they often avoid asking for help, may avoid doctors when sick, and feel resentment when others act in dependent ways. In the long term, there may be a sense of being stuck—limited facial expression, decreased connection to body and emotion, immobility, lack of energy, risk aversion, and a preference to be alone and away from judgment. There is a knowing, in this state, that to be with others means to lose self, to give up agency or will. People in this stage may think, “If I seek support, I will be attacked. I should get small. Remain quiet. Avoid becoming a target. There is only self.”

In relationships, this freeze state often plays out in hesitation, fear, lack of engagement, minimal expression, low motivation, limited enthusiasm, and greater attunement to anger and controlling actions in others. Those using avoidant strategies tend to look for ways to get out of a relationship before commitment enters the picture. This is the partner who lives with one foot out the door, resists talking about the future, and struggles with dependence in both self and other. Active and impenetrable boundaries preserve self from threat of other, limiting intimacy and threatening relationships.

Relationships may be characterized by hyper-discernment: Individuals may spend years or decades choosing the “perfect” partner, and they may be more likely to leave a friend/partner/lover they truly love after spending years struggling with the relationship, realizing afterward they were simply dissociated from their fear of being alone.

People may be more likely to seek alone time, even lying about demands on them in order to justify the need for space. They are more likely to use unintentional gaslighting as a means of deflecting attention/punishment. While less likely to verbalize their needs, they may tend to blame others for not meeting those needs. Avoidant strategies can, without being directly antagonistic, assert dominance in passive-aggressive ways, such as withdrawal as punishment. Even breakups might be handled in indirect and often ineffective ways—investing months or years trying to get one’s partner to initiate a breakup, for example. With a goal of protecting freedom and agency, individuals may disengage and even dissociate to maintain self as separate from other.

With awareness and attention, meeting self can feel like coming home, and we can begin to elicit and receive from the world what we have needed all along.The avoidant stage represents a reaction to a reaction. The duality of the first stage is still present, but the internalized parent (or protector) has become oppressive instead of abandoning. “We cannot show this neediness to the world. It is weak. It brings social and physical threat.” Tools used in this stage include dissociation and compartmentalization, as individuals attempt to simply maintain baseline survival functions. Strategies in this stage attempt to separate from dependence and present as self-sufficient. Individuals may be unable to identify or verbalize physical sensations in the present.


Presence occurs only in the completed circuit between self and other. This is more than a connection between two parties. Each side must be connected within in order to feel connected without, and vice versa. For the anxious side, this step means moving more toward self and mind. For the avoidant side, it means reaching toward other and landing in body. In attachment terms, if we cannot bear remaining present with the full experience of self and other simultaneously, connection may elude us, and trauma will persist.

We can look out into the world and see the undercurrent of attachment in every facet of existence—every choice, every reaction, every interaction. We rarely see the person before us. When we look into our partner’s eyes, we see the people behind us that laid the groundwork, the ones that defined our beliefs about the possibility of connection.
We meet ourselves in the same ways our caregivers met us, and in doing so, we continue to feel the same pain.
The outside world reflects our internal world. Through our own perceptions and projections, then, the world meets us the way we meet ourselves.

As we learn to meet ourselves with empathy and compassion, our experience of life can change. It may become a little softer, a little more manageable. With awareness and attention, meeting self can feel like coming home, and we can begin to elicit and receive from the world what we have needed all along.


  1. Diamond, D., Blatt, S. J., & Lichtenberg, J. D. (2007). Attachment & Sexuality. New York, NY: Analytic Press.
  2. Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
  3. Noricks, J. S. (2011). Parts Psychology: A New Model of Therapy for the Treatment of Psychological Problems through Healing the Normal Multiple Personalities Within Us: Case Studies in the Psychotherapy of Mental Disorders. Los Angeles, CA: New University Press.
  4. Porges, S. W. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
  5. Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York: Bantam Books.
  6. Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. New York, NY: Viking.

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